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Photo by Emma Delevante for Contrary Western.

The New Sound of Old Crow Medicine Show

Mike Harris on finding his sound in the old-timey band.

By Anna LoPinto

July 13, 2023

Guitarist Mike Harris sits on a plush salmon-colored couch at Hartland Studio in East Nashville. He looks the part of a musician–impressive beard, a straw Stetson, stately gold rings, and a sage pearl snap. Not to be taken too seriously though, according to his Nike high tops and Grateful Dead socks.

After an impressive 60 minutes of showcasing his virtuosic guitar playing, he pats the sweat off his brow with a Pendleton bandana that is neatly tucked in his pocket. Harris is the guitar player of Old Crow Medicine Show (OCMS), a band whose live performances are peppered with theatrics and are known for their intense physicality, in which working up a good sweat over the course of a performance is to be expected.

The performative aspect of the band isn’t rooted in excess but instead out of necessity. The band had its “big break” in 2000 when the blind, flatpicking, folk and country legend Doc Watson heard them busking outside a pharmacy in Boone, North Carolina, and those origins continue to inform the band’s style today. The original group was composed of 18-year-old pickers who had come to Appalachia to immerse themselves in the mountain culture, learning skills like primitive living, corn whiskey distillation, banjo building, and tobacco production. While there, they further developed their unique sound, a hybrid of old-timey music partnered with punk rock.

Watson was so impressed with the group that he invited them on the spot to play his highly-respected MerleFest. That meeting is credited as the springboard for OCMS’ success. Over the next two decades, the band has received multiple Grammy awards, was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, and co-wrote (with the help of unfinished Bob Dylan lyrics) one of the most popular country songs of all time: “Wagon Wheel.” Equally impressive is the band’s success with an evolving lineup of remarkable players. The founder of the band, Ketch Sector, is currently the only original member.

Watching Harris play, it makes sense that this sound–an impressive combination of bluegrass, old-timey, blues, and rock–has won him admission to OCMS. But his guitar playing is only the start of his musical contributions–slide guitar, guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, guitjo (a six-string banjo), and vocals are also listed in his band bio. “We joke you ‘pass left’ in the band,” Harris says, hinting at the musical flexibility required of OCMS members. In true old-timey fashion, which emphasizes gathering, community, and contributing, rather than individual accolades, each band member plays what needs to be played for the song. But OCMS doesn’t fit into one specific genre, which is a massive part of their appeal. The instrumental talent of the outfit is undeniable, but they understand the importance of performance. Historically, when the band was playing on the streets, if they didn’t get someone’s attention or catch their eye, they didn’t get paid. When Harris joined two decades later, that foundation was still relevant. “I had to match this crazy high level of energy and physicality. There are dance routines from certain members. You even have a stage persona. There are aspects of vaudeville at play. Ketch sets the bar, and you can meet him or hurt the show.”

Though the performance side of OCMS was something that Harris had to grow into, the music was not. As a child, Harris had a robust musical background. His father was a mandolin and guitar player, and his mother was a singer. After secretly playing his Dad’s guitar, he was gifted a Fender Squier Stratocaster at age 12. He attended bluegrass festivals as a young boy, went to see Alison Krauss and Union Station at least twenty times, and listened to the greats like Tony Rice and Doyle Lawson. Rice, a guitar master, hit Harris “like a ton of bricks.” Through attempts at emulating him, Harris came to the realization that nobody can play like him, but that time spent studying Rice became the foundation for his later work with OCMS. His love of bluegrass was counterbalanced with classic and southern rock like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as 90s country music, including Randy Travis and Tim McGraw. 

“I was super lucky that I lived in an area and lived in a family that participated in that culture,” says Harris. He continued to play and eventually attended Nashville’s Belmont University in 2006. Harris was impressed by his peers working as session players and touring artists. “I just thought, that is the coolest thing possible, and I am going to figure out how to do it.” A music career started to feel more accessible, and he formed the folk-rock band Apache Relay with his friend Brett Moore. They toured hard for six years in the United States, Canada, the U.K., and Europe.

After they disbanded in 2015, Harris had an identity crisis. “I became an adult in that band, and all I knew was that band,” he says. “It was tough for me to walk away from it.” While on hiatus from playing, Harris worked for a concert promotion company. While scouting possible acts in 2016, Harris heard the single “Down Home” by country singer Brent Cobb and thought, “This is the sound. This is what I’m about.”

He started booking Cobb, and they struck up a friendship. First and foremost, Harris appreciated Cobb’s songwriting. “He writes from such an honest place, and that resonated with me.” Harris also respected the production of the songs, which he describes as having a “funky swampy sound.” So when Cobb invited him to play, both on the road and on his records, it was a chance for Harris to get back on stage. 

During this time, he further developed his unique guitar style and continued progressing as a slide player. Though he had a deep appreciation of the pedal steel, he found the instrument complex. “I love the steel guitar, but I’m not smart enough to play it. I’m too caveman,” he says. 

The pedal steel is a console steel guitar consisting of foot pedals and knee levers, with the player sitting on a bench. Harris found he could achieve similar sounds through the slide guitar, which, unlike the pedal steel, is predominantly played standing up. The neck worked similar to traditional guitar playing but with a metal, brass, or ceramic slide on a fretting hand finger. A strong example of this technique can be heard in the recordings of Elmore James, Duane Allman, and Bonnie Raitt. Harris also started to integrate palm benders, a metal accessory that can be bolted to a guitar and used to pull two strings, changing the pitch of the notes. These palm benders paired with a slide create a one-of-a-kind guitar technique that partners the singing and vocal quality of slide guitar with the steel guitar's mechanical, note-bending precision. Harris was refining his new style of playing, and people began to notice.

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Video directed and produced by Contrary Western.

While on tour with Cobb and opening up for Chris Stapleton, Harris had his next big break when he was asked to sit in and play slide on a few of Stapleton’s songs, including “Millionaire.” He started doing it more frequently and began playing double duty between Cobb and Stapleton gigs. Harris’s adaptability and dedication to his craft were paying off. He began playing with Stapleton more consistently, including several television appearances. However, things took an unexpected turn in 2020 when his stacked tour schedule stopped due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

During the hiatus, Harris’s friend Jerry Pentecost, the former drummer of OCMS, approached him. They were looking for someone who could play acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and a myriad of other instruments. He got a call in early 2021 and was asked to audition. After two auditions on Wednesday and Thursday, he joined the band on Friday. That weekend, he had 30 brand new songs to review before recording demos in the studio on Monday. “It was a crazy whirlwind. We rolled so quickly right into album session mode. I had never even played a show with the guys,” says Harris. “We made two records and toured that entire year.” 

It was the first time since Apache Relay had dissolved that Harris was a full-time band member. He wasn’t just a hired picker but an integral part of the group. While more often than not, touring players are on the road and session players are on the album, Harris was again doing both. “I wasn’t backing an artist, where there’s the idea of ‘I want to make this perfect for these guys, and not take a lot of risks.’ I got on the Old Crow stage and could just be myself.”

Harris had fun and enjoyed being playful. “I don’t think there’s enough value put on entertainment sometimes… Hey man, it’s Friday night. Let’s give them a memory.” OCMS allowed him to take up space, to be creative and expansive. He created a stage persona and brought a lot of energy to his role. This energy is also a part of the DNA of country music, from the roots of the Grand Ole Opry, with old-time banjo player Uncle Dave Macon, to Roy Acuff balancing a fiddle on his head, and the characters of Minnie Pearl and String Bean. The physicality even permeates to string band music, with the incorporation of folk dancing with European and African roots, like clogging and flatfooting. “We combine a lot of elements of Opry history. It’s been fun to grow into that role and be a part of it.”

Though OCMS has a deep respect for traditional music, the writing isn’t limited to old hits and covers. The band is relevant, topical, and engaged. One of the most recent songs, “Louder Than Guns,” is a poignant message about the recent Covenant School shooting in Nashville. Harris helped to write it and recognizes the importance of art as activism.  “I’m not a politician or policy maker, but I am a musician, and I will take a stand.”

As I finish my conversation with Harris, I notice a look of contentment on his face and think back on the decades it took him to get to this moment. The progression from player to songwriter, road dog to session player, and sideman to band member and now Grand Ole Opry member–it’s been a true evolution. It’s obvious he has a sincere desire to do “a good job,” but he’s enjoying himself too.

“You play a lot of dues, but we are really lucky to get to do this. I’m so grateful for all of these experiences. I have a great reverence for these people and these songs.”

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